Liberal Hinduism versus Sectarian Hindutva

Dr Ram Puniyani, CNS Columnist
Banning or attacking the books in current times has been aplenty. There have been many reasons given for this intolerant attitude by different social-political groups. The cases of Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, book on Sonia Gandhi Red Saree, A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayans are some of the major examples. There is a tight rope walk between freedom of expression and hurting ‘others’ sensibilities, which keeps fluctuating for same political groups.

Those from Hindu right will talk of freedom of expression for Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen, while the Muslim fundamentalists will talk of ‘Hurting religious sensibilities at the same time. In case of ‘The Hindus an Alternative History’ by Wendy Donigar or ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ the same Hindu right will assert the religious sensibility argument to get the uncomfortable things banished away. The overall victim of this intolerant attitude is freedom of expression and it also shows the ascendance of ‘Taliban’ elements in the social political sphere.

The ‘out of court settlement’ reached by Penguin to pulp its stock of ‘The Hindus-an alternative History’ is a very condemnable move from one of the most powerful publishers, who could have taken the matters further to the highest legal battles and preserved the right of a scholar to disseminate her views, and the right of readers to have access to it. It is in the fitness of things that well known Penguin authors Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadrajan have written to Penguin to pulp their books and cancel their agreements. The case against The Hindus… was filed by one Dinanath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS).

In his petition to the court, the book is described as “shallow, distorted...a haphazard presentation riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies”, and …that Doniger herself is driven by a “Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light”. Interestingly Doniger is no Christian, she is Jewish. In her preface she writes “Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables)—did actually contribute to Hinduism…to tell a story of Hinduism that’s been suppressed and was increasingly hard to find in the media and textbooks…It’s not about philosophy, it’s not about meditation, it’s about stories, about animals and untouchables and women. It’s the way that Hinduism has dealt with pluralism.”

The two central aspects of the book are, one a presentation of the matters related to sex, which has become a taboo for the self proclaimed custodians of Hinduism. One knows the great creations like Khajuraho and Konark and the depiction of matters related to sex, that’s how it was looked at as and that’s how it prevails in society, before the Victorian prudishness took over. One recalls the classic of Kalidas; ‘Kumar Sambhav’, canto 8, which gives the erotic episode of Shankar and Parvati. And same way Adi Shankaracharya’s, Saundarya Lahiri, which gives graphic descriptions of the goddess, sholaka 78-79 being two examples.

As far as attack on Doniger’s book is concerned it is part of the long sequence of the agenda of SBAS and the other RSS affiliates like VHP, Bajrang Dal etc, who became more assertive after the decade of 1980s. This is also the period when the touchiness about religious sensibilities and suppression of the freedom of expression became a phenomenon of regular occurrence. It is interesting to note that the paintings of M.F. Husain drawn in the decades of 1960s and 1970s came under attack much later, during the 1980s with the rise of the aggressive presence of politics, which began around the Ram Temple issue.

Batra, who filed the suit, is the head of the Vidya Bharati’s Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, the educational arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the patriarch of the Hindu right. The earlier major book under its attack was A.K. Ramanujan’s classic essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, which was part of the syllabus in Delhi University. This essay shows the wide prevalence of diverse telling of story of Lord Ram. These diverse versions are not in conformity with the version of Ram story which gels with the Ram Temple campaign. Even before the attack on this book, the RSS supporters had attacked an exhibition of many tellings of Ram story by Sahmat. In a similar vein RSS’s political wing BJP’s political and ideological partner Shiv Sena in Maharashtra had opposed the publication of the book ‘Riddles of Ram and Krishna’ as in this book Ambedkar, apart from other things, says that he will not regard Ram Krishna as Gods and nor will worship them.

Doniger has been a Professor at School of Oriental and African Studies in University of London. She has two doctorates in Sanskrit and Indian studies and has written several works of scholarship on Hinduism. She says that Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of compassion for deprived sections of society, women and pariahs as well. An example of this is in order, she is critical of Manu smiriti as it denigrates the women, at the same time she appreciates the sensitivity with which Vatsayanan’s Kam Sutra deals with women.

The tirade of SBAS and other RSS progeny against differing versions of Hinduism, and iconography is a part of its political agenda. It harps on the Brahamanical version of Hinduism bypassing and undermining the other Hindu traditions, Nath, Tantra, Bhakti, Shaiva, Siddha etc. The construction of RSS brand of Hinduism is a part of its Hindutva project, which took place during colonial period. Hindutva is the political ideology of this supra political organization, RSS. Hindutva picks up its version of Hinduism from the elaboration of European Orientalist interpretation of Hindu traditions. Orientalist scholars were in tune with the monotheistic worldview and that was reflected in their reading of Hinduism. In their rendering Hinduism got straight jacketed into monotheistic, monistic one and this puritan monolithic notion of Hinduism came to be presented as the Hinduism. The Colonial powers’ monotheistic worldview could not fathom the diverse richness of Hinduism’s philosophical, spiritual, religious and aesthetic expressions. Their understanding of religion revolves around a single Prophet. Hinduism as a religion as such is a conglomeration of multiple traditions which were prevalent here. Brahmanism was just one of them.

During the colonial period by selectively projecting Brahmanical texts and values as Hinduism, the Orientalist scholars and British rulers gave legitimacy to caste and gender based Brahiminical tendency as ‘The Hinduism’. Brahmanism started becoming projected as the Hinduism. It is due to this that Ambedkar went on to say that ‘Hinduism is Brahmanic theology’. He was criticizing the social inequality prevalent in the name of Hinduism. Opposed to Brahmanical stream was the Shramnanic traditions of Hinduism, which by that time were out of the horizon of scholarship of Westerners and the British policy makers. In due course the declining sections of Hindu Landlords and upper caste resorted to the politics of Hindutva, which in the name of glorious Hindu traditions wanted to uphold the status quo of caste and gender, wanted to retain its hegemony in social and economic sphere. The freedom movement and its leader Gandhi’s Hinduism was away from this Brahmanical-Hindutva stream. It was more in continuation with liberal Hindu belonging to Shramanic tradition. It is the Hinduism with which the large sections of Hindus could identify.

Hindu Mahasabha and RSS brand of Hindutva was a marginal phenomenon as it was elite Brahamnical and harped on the values which were at deeper level undermining the status and dignity of women and dalits. That’s how RSS and the elite supporting them kept aloof from the social changes of caste and gender during this period, and stuck to their agenda of Hindu nation based on their own sectarian interpretation of Hinduism. The RSS, in pursuance of its agenda floated SBAS, which was the one which was instrumental in communalization of the history text books during the NDA regime, led by BJP-Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The same organization is the one which is at the back of the multitude of educational endeavors and promotes the divisive-sectarian history through many Sarswati Shishu Mandirs, Ekal Vidyalayas amongst others. So, for them Doniger’s book is a red rag as it talks of rich diverse traditions of the people and is not prude enough to suppress the narrations related to sex. Doniger talks of liberal Hinduism while RSS wants sectarian Hindutva imposed on the society. The struggle between liberal Hinduism and sectarian Hindutva is in full flow around the debate on this book.     

Dr Ram Puniyani, CNS Columnist
March  2014

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